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Child Development - Choosing Between ABA therapy and School


By: Christine Raches, PsyD, HSPP, BCBA, IMH-E
Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics
IU School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development

Perhaps one of the most frequently asked questions upon receiving a diagnosis is whether a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder should attend a school program (with supports) or participate in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). The decision to participate in 30-40 hours a week of ABA is not one that should be taken lightly, particularly if a school program is available.   Schools are required by federal law to provide an appropriate education for school-age children (ages 3 and up) in the “least restrictive environment.” ABA programming should be considered to be the “most restrictive environment” and should be considered as a “short-term” placement for children so that they can learn the necessary skills in order to be successful in a more traditional school setting. ABA programs have the opportunity to provide intensive one-on-one therapy to individuals as a way to teach a variety of skills. Additionally, ABA programs can work with families and children and decrease or minimize negative behaviors that may become problematic in a traditional school setting and that may interfere with learning. ABA programming with school-age children should have at least a percentage of the programming focused on teaching skills necessary for a child to participate in a school environment. 

As such, an ABA program should be considered if the child diagnosed with ASD is having some significant problematic behaviors that would interfere with his/her learning or that would place teacher and/or peers at risk of harm.  A child with no aggressive or disruptive behaviors may be able to participate in a more “traditional” school environment with the help of a one-on-one aide. If a child is in a traditional school setting, there should be careful observation to ensure that the child is participating and benefitting from that environment. At times, children diagnosed with ASD have a hard time with school structure and routines. Teachers are often not properly trained to work with children on the spectrum and may simply allow the child to be in the classroom without active participation. 

Additionally, if a school-aged child is participating in a full-time ABA program, there should be regular conversations about how and when school will be introduced. An ABA therapist is essentially “working themselves out of a job,” suggesting that a plan should also be present on how to reduce ABA hours and introduce more socially appropriate environments. Additionally, family members are encouraged to maintain communication with their local school setting to build relationships and plan for the day that the child is enrolled in the school. These conversations should include discussions surrounding supports and the transition into school. Some private schools will allow ABA therapists to attend all or some of the school day with a child. Developing relationships and having conversations early can make the transition easier for all involved. 

Making the decision to choose an ABA program or a school setting is not an easy one. Having regular conversations about what placement is best for a child can help to make this decision easier. Understanding supports and available resources can make this decision easier for all involved. 

Christine Raches, PsyD, HSPP, BCBA, IMH-E is a clinical psychologist and Board Certified Behavior Analyst at the Riley Child Development Center-LEND Program. She currently serves as the Training Director for the LEND Program. She participates on an interdisciplinary team that conducts evaluations on children with suspected neurodevelopmental disabilities, behavioral disorders, or developmental delays.


The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.

Cristy James

Cristina James is the Data Coordinator, Associate Training Director, and Family Discipline Coordinator in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Child Development at Indiana University School of Medicine. She has over 10 years of professional experience and a life-long lived experience in neurodevelopmental disorders which, combined with her analytical skills, allow her to effectively span across functions to help provide and improve many LEND outcomes.